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Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Feast day: July 16

by Fr Vincent Vaz, S.D.B.

A courageous devotee

Scapular of Our Lady of Mount CarmelThe famous Cardinal Howard of England was in his early life a lieutenant in the army. One day, an officer picked up a scapular somewhere in the barracks. He brought it to the mess table, where it was ridiculed and laughed about. To top off their disrespect, one of the soldiers hung the scapular on the gas pipe over the table.

Lieutenant Howard came in rather late, to be greeted with shouts: "Oh, Howard, here is something in your line. Isn't this thing popish?"

As soon as Howard recognized his scapular, he strode straight to the middle of the room, and spoke in a strong determined voice: "Yes, it is something I reverence and esteem, and for which I am ready to draw my sword, if necessary, to defend."

With that he drew his sword, and with the tip of it slowly took down the scapular from the gas pipe, kissed it, and reverently pinned it on his breast. Not a word was said. But everyone present silently honoured the man who had the courage to stand up for his religious convictions, who was brave enough to draw his sword for what he believed.

Origins in the Old Testament

Our Lady of Mount CarmelThe story of the scapular begins on the heights of Mount Carmel, a beautiful mountain range in Palestine overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Eight centuries before Christ, the prophet Elijah had prophesied a severe drought which came to pass and lasted three years - God's punishment to the Jewish nation for its idolatry. At the end of that period, Elijah faced the 450 prophets of Baal, the pagan idol, in front of King Ahab and all the people of Israel. At the behest of Elijah a fire consumed the offerings on the altar (something the prophets of Baal had tried to do and failed). With this Elijah convinced Ahab and the people that Yahweh was the true God.

Since the people had returned to Yahweh, Elijah climbed to the top of Mount Carmel and prayed for rain to end the drought. Seven times he sent his servant to look at the sea. Only at the seventh time, the servant noticed a little cloud rising out of the sea. "And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind and there was a great rain." (1 Kings 18:45) Many centuries later, doctors of the Church - St Augustine and St Ambrose, among them - would reflect that the little cloud prefigured the Immaculate Virgin, who would rise from the sea of humanity and usher in the torrent of grace and salvation that would be poured forth by the Redeemer.

Elijah himself, according to tradition, established on Mount Carmel an order of hermits who honoured through penance and prayer the Virgin still to be born, destined to be the Mother of the Messiah.

Birth of the Carmelite Order

At the turn of the thirteenth century, the Crusaders came from Europe to the Holy Land to free it from Moslem hands. A few stayed on as hermits on Mount Carmel and organized themselves "The Brothers of St Mary of Carmel". In 1206 St Albert, the Latin-rite Patriarch of the Holy Land, wrote a Rule of life for them which has served Carmelites ever since as a framework of life.

The Carmelite foundation on Mount Carmel lasted barley eighty years as the Moslems started regaining territory in the Holy Land. Most of the hermits, fearing persecution, fled to Europe. The few who chose to remain were massacred in 1291.

St Simon Stock

St Simon Stock with Our Lady of Mount CarmelSome of the Carmelite hermits emigrated to England and there they met a strange but holy man, Simon Stock. He was born in Kent in the year 1185. At the age of twelve he had withdrawn as a hermit to an English forest, finding shelter in the hollow of an oak tree from which he derived the surname "Stock". Even as a child, Simon had a great devotion to Our Lady. Often Our Blessed Mother appeared to him in visions. In one apparition she had revealed to him that some holy hermits devoted to her service would arrive from Mount Carmel and that he should join their Order.

In 1241 the Earl of Kent gave the Carmelites a home on his vast estate at Aylesford, and they began at once to build their monastery with a church dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady. At their chapter meeting in 1245, Simon Stock was elected Prior General. His sanctity and his qualities as a leader were very much needed as the Order was changing its lifestyle from that of contemplative hermits into a community of mendicant friars similar to the Franciscans and Dominicans.

On the night of July 16, 1251, as Simon Stock spent the whole night in prayer and begged his Heavenly Mother for guidance, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to him and held out a scapular, saying: "Take, beloved son, this scapular of your order as a badge of my confraternity and for you and for all who wear it a special grace: whoever dies in this garment will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of covenant."

Simon wrote a detailed account of Our Lady's visit and promise and sent it to all the Carmelite monasteries. Devotion to the scapular began to spread. Popes and bishops, kings and queens, nobles and peasants, all wanted to be invested in the brown scapular. Over the centuries, this devotion has been blessed and approved by successive popes.

The Sabbatine Privilege

St Simon Stock went to his heavenly reward in 1265 while making a visitation to the Carmelite community at Bordeaux, France. In 1322, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to Pope John XXII in Avignon, France, and urged him to take the Order of Mount Carmel under his special protection. She promised that she would assist the souls of its members in purgatory and deliver them from their sufferings on the first Saturday after death if they fulfilled certain conditions. This is known as the Sabbatine Privilege. Pope John XXII issued a papal bull in which he stated all that Our Lady had told him.

The conditions required for gaining the Sabbatine Privilege are the observance of chastity according to one's state of life, the wearing of the scapular with devotion, and the daily recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin (or some other practice approved by one's confessor). Pope St Pius X authorized the substitution of a medal for the brown scapular. The medal should have on one side the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and on the other side the image of Our Lady.

Pope Pius XII strongly recommended the devotion of the brown scapular, saying, "It does not deal with a matter of little account, since it concerns the acquisition of eternal life, in virtue of the traditional promise of the Most Blessed Virgin."

Pope Benedict XV tells us: "All should have a common language and a common armour: the language, the words of the Gospel; the common armour, the scapular of the Virgin of Carmel, which all ought to wear, and which enjoys the singular privilege of protection, even after death."

Short form of giving the scapular

Receive this Scapular, a sign of your special relationship with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whom you pledge to imitate. May it be a reminder to you of your dignity as a Christian in serving others and imitating Mary. Wear it as a sign of her protection and of belonging to the family of Carmel, voluntarily doing the will of God and devoting yourself to building a world true to his plan of community, justice and peace.

The Carmelite Scapular is not:

  • a magical charm to protect you
  • an automatic guarantee of salvation
  • an excuse for not living up to the demands of the Christian life

It is a sign:

  • which has been approved by the Church for over seven centuries;
  • which stands for the decision to
    • follow Jesus like Mary:
    • be open to God and to his will
    • be guided by faith, hope, and love
    • to pray at all times
    • to discover God present in all that happens around us.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, pray for us.